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This is when a more powerful character, likely villainous, decides to give a weaker character a "chance" to beat them somehow (not necessarily in combat) by setting limitations on themselves or holding back. They could agree to play a game with arbitrary rules, or they could hold back in battle to keep it entertaining. One thing's for sure, though: They have no intention of actually leveling the playing field and playing fair. They just think they can beat the other character with their hands tied behind their back. If it turns out they can't, or they get bored, they'll stop trying and just use more force.
It's a hard situation for the weaker character, who is pretty much at the other's mercy, but it can be a lot better than if the stronger character was going at full strength. The stronger character may get so arrogant the weaker actually has a chance of beating them before they realize it. Even though they're prepared to cheat, the rules may turn against them anyway. If they're holding back in a fight while the other is trying seriously, they might end up not being so much stronger after all due to the difference in effort. Or they might be distracted while a third party foils their plans right behind their back.
If the stronger character plays weak and reveals they're applying this trope only some time into the confrontation, it's a case of some form of I Am Not Left-Handed. But they might just be clearly the more powerful one from the start (or somewhat ambiguously but not hiding it) with the weaker party having no chance but to play along anyway.
The stronger character's motivation is most likely their own amusement, as in It Amused Me or even For the Evulz, but it's not impossible for there to be some more rational end (eg., if the stronger character is a Trickster Mentor).
The role of the more powerful character is well suited for a powerful Reality Warper, as "He snapped his fingers and won" would be a boring plot, but such powers give endless opportunities for toying with others.
For obvious reasons, tends to be a David Versus Goliath situation. Other tropes that may come up include Heroic Second Wind and Near Villain Victory. Compare Willfully Weak, Evil Is Stylish, Evil Gloating, and My Defense Need Not Protect Me Forever, which all resemble this in different ways. In a fight, Curb Stomp Battle is likely what would happen if the stronger character didn't hold back... and it might anyway.
Anime and Manga
- Dragonball Z: Standard practice for most villains (and some heroes) when their power significantly eclipses that of their opponent. This often leads to their undoing, but not always.
- Vegeta toying with Semi-Perfect Cell. Wouldn't have been a problem had he not allowed Cell to reach his perfect form so he'd be more challenging, though.
- Gohan toying with Perfect Cell, which cost his father his life.
- Gotenks not taking his fight with Super Buu seriously. This is an example of someone without a power advantage playing the trope.
- Super Gotenks Buu toying with Gohan, which was one of the more foolproof cases and was only foiled by convenient timing.
- Vegito toying with Super Gohan Buu. This was actually part of his strategy rather than an act of arrogance, though.
- Frieza pretty much lived this trope. After going through many fights against the heroes and reaching his final form, he reveals to Goku he's only been using a fraction of his total power (1% in the dub) and proceeds to start using one third. This is more than enough to beat Goku silly, and at one point briefly decides to give Goku a fighting chance by not using his hands. Once Goku goes Super Saiyan, however, Frieza stops playing around and convinces Goku to allow him to fight at full power. Unfortunately for him, his window of opportunity has already flown out the window.
- Goku even points out to Frieza why he's going to end up losing: having done nothing but toy with weaker opponents for nearly his entire life, when he actually goes all-out to fight Super Saiyan Goku, he's got little-to-no practice fighting an equal or superior opponent, and has such terrible endurance (especially by this point) that after only a short time at full power, he starts getting rapidly weaker.
- Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children (though each of these relies on interpretation of things not made explicit):
- Near the beginning, the Remnants of Sephiroth attack Cloud while he's motorcycling near what's left of Midgar. Loz and Yazoo on their own motorcycles together with a group of summoned monsters called Shadow Creepers give him more trouble than he can handle. The battle ends with Yazoo shooting Cloud right between the eyes but only hitting his goggles, possibly just to show he could have killed him right then, and Kadaj calling off the Shadow Creepers just when they're all about pounce on Cloud at the same time. It isn't until later in the movie that Cloud regains the strength to be a match for the Remnants. At this point they're toying with him.
- Loz gets into a fight with Tifa in the church, which he seems to regard as good sport. She beats him up with relative ease and he seems to be defeated. Then he gets up again and, no longer wanting to play, takes her out with one move using Flash Step.
- This is also a likely way of interpreting the final battle between Cloud and Sephiroth. Sephiroth, whose motivation at this point is largely payback for being defeated in the game, drives Cloud to his highest limits without even so much as getting winded himself, and then tries to finish him off after some suitable Evil Gloating.
- Hunter X Hunter: On the way to the 4th phase of the Hunter Exam, Netero challenges Gon and Killua to steal a basketball from him. It's soon apparent that he's Just Toying with Them. Gon turns this into a game of his own - he wants to see if he can force Netero to use his other arm to keep the ball away from him.
- Ranma Half: Ranma holds off Akane's attacks with one hand while reading a manga with the other. Now that's humiliation.
- Yu Yu Hakusho: Young Toguro, the antagonist of the second season (the Dark Tournament), feigned defeat the first time he met Yusuke in order for his employer to win a bet. However, he later went back gave Yusuke a demonstration of his real power by demolishing a building. He plays this trope by explicitly telling others what percent of his power he's using. The only exception is during his final fight with Yusuke when he revealed he'd only been using 85% of his power instead of 100%
- Mr. Mxyzptlk can do basically anything at will, so he likes to toy with Superman like this, usually until Superman fools him to say his own name backwards so that he gets sent back into his own dimension. His powers are on such a level that it's quite a horrifying thought if he decided to become properly evil, and doubly so when The Joker gained his powers in "Emperor Joker". The last, incidentally, fits this trope as well, and the Joker is defeated because he can't stop toying with Batman and just kill him.
- This is often used in issues of X-Men involving The Juggernaut. Juggy also did this in his fights against Spider-Man, but luckily for the wall-crawler, those are fewer and farther between.
- In the Jason Wood series, the Big Bad explicitly says he could kill Jason any time he likes, but that would be "unamusing".
- The Princess Bride:
- In the fight between Inigo Montoya and the Man in Black, the Trope Namer for I Am Not Left-Handed, Inigo starts figting with his off-hand just because he can't find a decent challenge anywhere any more. It quickly turns out that this time he was wrong about having the superiority needed in the first place to apply this trope. The Man in Black, however...
- The fight between the Man in Black and Fezzik starts out this way, with the Man in Black finding himself in a Punch-Punch-Punch Uh-Oh situation while Fezzik basically stands there impassively. This is quickly lampshaded:
The Man in Black: Are you taking this seriously?
Fezzik: I just want you to feel you are doing well! It's not my fault being the biggest and the strongest. I don't even exercise.
- Q towards Picard in Star Trek: The Next Generation. Q was an omnipotent being who appeared periodically in TNG, starting with the first episode. He and the rest of his race (the Q Continuum) had decided the human race was dangerous and needed to be destroyed, but then some humans saved the lives of some other aliens, and the Q stopped observing and started interacting directly with humans, particularly Picard. Why didn't they just destroy the human race immediately they decided people were too dangerous? Q doesn't stay in a very adversarial position towards Picard, but he isn't all that kind, either.
- Q also picks a fight with Capt. Sisko of Deep Space Nine, provoking Sisko to punch him and knock him down. Again, Q seems to be pulling his punches, given what he can do.
- Beetle Bailey is sometimes shown as such a better runner than Sarge that he can annoy him further by reading a newspaper while being chased by him.
- Jedi Outcast: At the end of the second level, before Kyle Katarn has regained his Force powers, Desann deliberately challenges him to defeat him without them. Mostly, he'll just stand there and deflect whatever attacks the player throws at him. It's all part of a Batman Gambit to make Kyle look to regain his powers.
- Baldur's Gate II:
- In a side quest, Firkraag, a powerful red dragon with a grudge against the Player Character's dead mentor Gorion, takes the guise of a human to lure the characters to his lands to perform what sounds like standard heroic mercenary work. Then he sets them to kill some paladins (through an illusion that makes each party see the other as monsters) to ruin their reputation. Once the party has fought its way down through his lair, he appears in his true form and explains that he just wanted to torture Gorion's spirit, and can't be bothered to kill the protagonist just then, unless they really insist on it, recommending that they just be on their way. He's powerful enough in a fight that this arrogance isn't entirely unwarranted.
- In the main plot, Irenicus has the Player Character and their allies at his mercy after just stealing the souls of two of them. His pragmatic mind finds no more use for them, but when he gives them to Bodhi to dispose of, she decides to give them a Mercy Lead in a convenient nearby labyrinth full of challenges and enemies before hunting them down. Or that's what she says, anyway, as she eventually shows up from the front rather than behind and explains she had no intention of keeping any deal. Gameplay and Story Segregation steps in at this point, because in game terms Bodhi would have to be completely foolish to think she is in no risk trying to stop the party (which she just re-armed herself) with the help of the handful of vampires she has with her. It becomes a moot point anyway when the player character's Super-Powered Evil Side makes its first appearance.
- The'Galin from Adventure Quest is a plot-guided Hopeless Boss Fight for most players and a Bonus Boss for high-end players. He is also the God of Uncreation and intentionally allows the player to futilely attack him as he toys back and inevitably defeats the player.
- In The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, Ghirahim does this with Link in their first duel, and even does this in their second fight, but less held back. By the time they reach their third duel, Ghirahim assumes his true form and stops holding back.
- Sluggy Freelance
- In "Oceans Unmoving", Bun-bun remarks that the only reason he hasn't killed Calix yet for getting in his way is because he kind of likes him... especially when he can verbally "crush his soul", as he then proceeds to do while at the same time demonstrating he could physically kill him easily.
- In "A Time For Hair Raising", the characters enter a spirit world and face two Jerkass Genies, Zefolas and Fezeel. These two demons trade in souls and are virtually omnipotent in their own realm, but like to play a game of granting wishes to mortals in exchange for their souls rather than just taking them outright. They have no intention of ever losing the game, though, so they interpret the wishes however they like and ignore all that might cause them harm. Their only weakness is that they're still bound by any promise they do choose to make.
- In The Last Days of Foxhound, there's one situation where Foxhound, (the Quirky Miniboss Squad from Metal Gear Solid) tries to save several members of Dead Cell, (the Quirky Miniboss Squad from Metal Gear Solid 2 Sons of Liberty) who have been captured. To start off, a pair of snipers start thinning out the guards in the compound they're attacking. One of them quickly takes out two out of three guards that are standing together, but keeps missing the last one by an inch, even when the guy runs inside. When the other sniper comments on this, the first sniper comments "I'm just fucking with him."
- At one point in The Order of the Stick, among an evil adventuring party, Malack points out (rather angrily, given the circumstances) that Tarquin was doing this in order to test the skills of one of the enemies he was fighting. He apologises and promises not to do it again.
- My Little Pony Friendship Is Magic: Discord, an evilly mischievous Reality Warper who displays the power to easily destroy the main characters, challenges the ponies to play a game to regain the Elements of Harmony, the only thing capable of defeating him. During play, he approaches each of them and manipulates them into abandoning the Element each of them represents before magically hypnotizing them into a bizarro version of themselves -- if his attempt fails, he simply brainwashes his victim with brute force, and even "wins" by brainwashing one character to break the rules. The result of this is that he can just hand them the Elements, so he can watch and laugh as they prove powerless, and breaks the heroines' hope entirely. Unsurprisingly, this arrogance leads to his undoing later.
- Batman the Brave And The Bold: In "Darkseid Descending", Darkseid agrees to Batman's challenge to a fistfight without using his "godlike powers" because he finds the idea interesting. It doesn't make a whole lot of difference in terms of power levels, because he's still got physical abilities on par with Superman. Batman manages to keep him busy for a moment, in which time one of his allies pushes the "villain loses" button that sucks Darkseid and his army back away from Earth.
- From Avatar: The Last Airbender: Azula to Sokka during the eclipse/invasion.
Sokka: Wait, I know you're a better fighter than this!
Azula: Oh, I know, I'm just wasting your time until the eclipse is over. And it looks like my Firebending is back!
- In Sequel Series The Legend of Korra Big Bad Amon makes a show out of tying up bending members of a crime syndicate (and one of the heroes who got mixed up with them) and permanently removing their powers in front of a huge crowd of Equalist sympathizers. This trope comes into play when, as part of his show, Amon lets the crime boss loose and offers him the chance to fight to protect himself. It's all the more impressive when Amon wins. Rather easily, in fact.
- When Oberon returns and wants to wipe the Avalon clan off the island, Goliath challenges him to let them remain. Oberon's wife makes it more interesting (and to give them a fighting chance), and get's him to agree to fight with only "the strength of a child." He agrees, having been bored for some millenia. What he fails to say is that he'll have the strength of a child of Avalon, meaning he's still leagues more powerful than four standard gargoyles.
- Also, when the Arch Mage is powered up by the Phoenix Gate, Eye of Odin, and the spellbook, he goes into the magic version of Electric Torture on Goliath, all while gloating about how he could kill Goliath with a word if he wanted to. When Goliath finally asks why the arch mage doesn't just do that, the reply is "Because I'm having too much fun."
- Cats do this with mice in real life, in order to teach their kittens how to hunt, and on their own because it's the safest way for the cat to kill without risking injury to themselves. By catching and releasing their prey over and over, they wear out their prey to the point where they're too tired to fight back.
- Cats who missed out on this teaching from their mothers may be toying with their prey because they're not actually sure what to do with it now they've got it.
- In Horse Racing, the handicapping system means that owners want their horses to win by as small a margin as possible.
- Or more probably that bookmakers don't want everyone to simply pile on bets on the "known best" horse.